No respect

Without a doubt, the Dallas school board is the most scorned body of elected officials in this city. In the course of a week, one could scarcely find a person who had anything good to say about it.

A few sample sound bites: "The most pathetic, incompetent group of people I've ever seen." "Not a natural-born leader in the entire group." "A ship of fools." And those were some of the nicer comments.

On this most maligned governmental body, the most maligned member of late is 40-year-old DISD graduate Se-Gwen Tyler. Until recently, Tyler, an African-American freshman trustee, had been content to sit back and learn from her more experienced colleagues. But she broke out of the listen-and-learn stage in a big way June 2 when she cast the deciding vote to elect an Anglo, Roxan Staff, as board president.

The move shocked Tyler's African-American colleagues on the board, Ron Price and Hollis Brashear, who had assumed she would support Brashear. It was Brashear who had led the board for nearly two turbulent years, culminating in its recent unanimous choice of a new superintendent.

Tyler's bold vote took on a new spin when a bitter Brashear appeared on KRLD-AM and commented that Tyler's vote was motivated by her own ambitions and outstanding loans from the Staff family during Tyler's hotly contested race last year for the District 5 trustee seat.

Staff and her husband, Randy, own North Dallas' American Bank, which financed a $6,000 loan to Tyler. Randy Staff loaned an additional $2,400 to Tyler at no interest, and the Staffs also made a $1,000 contribution to Tyler's campaign.

Brashear's implication was clear: He believes Tyler's vote was political payback. Not only that, he claims she lied to him in the weeks leading up to the election for board president, vowing to support him.

These days, Tyler is answering many questions about her controversial vote. Was she a sell-out to Anglo interests, or did her break from the ranks of African-American board members signal a courageous move away from racial politics? Whatever the case, Tyler's integrity is being scrutinized under a light so hot it just might consume her.

And it turns out her motives for showing her back to Brashear may not be nearly as tidy as Staff and her allies on the board would have you believe.

Tyler spoke at length to the Dallas Observer last week about her pivotal vote, and her every answer had something to do with respect. Aretha Franklin couldn't have provided a more insistent refrain.

Tyler, it seems, didn't feel like she had received much of it -- respect, that is -- from Brashear and Ron Price. And her vote against Brashear had something to do with that.

But there's been precious little respect all around for DISD board members, and Tyler in particular. Some folks will tell you plainly that Se-Gwen Tyler is not supposed to be on this board. "She's a nice lady, but this is all about five miles over her head," says Russell Fish, a DISD activist. Others are much harsher in their criticism.

Tyler won her trustee position last August after her opponent, Richard Evans, supported by many in black Dallas' political establishment, turned out to be anything but school board material. He claimed to have a Ph.d., but couldn't even produce a G.E.D. Many people publicly proclaimed their support for Tyler simply because she possessed a high school diploma and, more important, appeared to be honest -- at least in contrast to Evans.

Though Tyler beat Evans soundly in a runoff, many were left with the impression that she possessed only the scantiest of résumés, with no college study and no expertise in business or education.

Tyler wants to set the record straight. Her DISD bio says she attended All State Business College in Dallas, which has since shut down, and put her skills to use keeping the books for the Peaceful Rest Missionary Baptist Association, an organization of about 20 churches. She is also executive assistant at Arlington Park Baptist Church, and says she works part-time for a nurse's association caring for an ailing senior citizen. She juggles these three jobs because they allow her to set her own schedule. "They don't pay much, but they keep money in my pocket and food on my table," she says.

Every little bit helps her and her parents. Tyler, who is single, lives at home, where she cares for her father, a stroke victim, at least four hours each day.

In the realm of politics, Tyler may be a neophyte, but she's savvy enough to know she has something to prove to the public. She orchestrated her interview with the Observer so a reporter would catch her in action at a meeting involving PTA representatives and the principal of Jefferson Davis Elementary School. The group was discussing a campaign to change the school's name to Barbara Jordan Elementary.

"You know, I'm going to push for this," Tyler said to Jon Dahlander, head of DISD communications, who was present to trouble-shoot.

He nodded his head. "I know, Se-Gwen."

For a moment, she preached about how insulting it is to have the name of the Confederacy's president on a school attended mostly by minority children. Four heads nodded in agreement.

Tyler was at ease with the group but not quite relaxed. Sitting ramrod straight, she scribbled notes and scanned documents. Dahlander made a series of recommendations. Everything he advised Tyler to do, she had already done. The issue was on the school board's agenda, and she had her votes squared away. She was on top of it.

Later on, Tyler comments that these people have been trying to push through the name change since 1996. Each year, their efforts have been dismissed with little explanation.

"The way these people have been treated doesn't make any sense," Tyler says with disgust. She doesn't like it when people are treated like second-class citizens, and she believes these folks were taken for granted.

That's exactly how she feels Price and Brashear treated her -- like a second-class citizen. Tyler says she endured months of disrespect from the men. "They would cut me off in mid-conversation. They would talk over me and even turn their back on me when I was speaking. It's a shame that it was the African-American men on the board who disrespected me."

Some factions in black Dallas are willing to throw that complaint right back at her -- saying Tyler disrespected her black constituents by voting for Roxan Staff. The most brutal criticism, by far, has come from former city council member Diane Ragsdale, who called Tyler "Aunt Jemima Se-Gwen."

Others join in the chorus. "She carried us back 75 years when she voted against Hollis," says Hattie Jackson, a resident of Tyler's district who is a retired schoolteacher and longtime friend of Brashear's. Jackson says he would never treat Tyler with disrespect. "He's a very kind and religious man," she says. "I think [Tyler] has some kind of inferiority complex."

Brashear's leadership style, however, clearly had become an issue among board members. Several sources described the former Army officer as gruff and abrasive. Even some of those who had voted for him as board president in the past offered little in the way of endorsement, noting that Brashear simply carried the least baggage among board members.

Commenting on Brashear's leadership, former trustee Don Venable begins with an apology: "I have to take credit for putting Hollis in that position, but Hollis is going to take the blame for his conduct once he got the position." Venable says it went to Brashear's head. "He showed very quickly that he lacked the talent and character to be president." He goes on to describe Brashear's leadership style as punitive. "People either lock step with him or they're punished."

That's what happened to Tyler, he says. "She was tired of being pushed around."

Board member Jose Plata, who voted for Staff on June 2, goes so far as to call Brashear a dictator. Initially, Plata is vehemently opposed to discussing Brashear at all, but when he gets warmed up, he cuts loose. "He was not only condescending to women -- Ms. Tyler included -- but he did not understand leadership except in a linear structure, dictatorial. I've told him to his face."

The perception that Brashear condescended is what irks Tyler the most. After her vote for Staff, she told The Dallas Morning News that Brashear held her back -- though she offered no specifics. Brashear responded that the only thing holding Tyler back was her lack of preparation for board meetings.

Ron Price dismisses Tyler's criticisms of Brashear at the same time he seems to underscore her fundamental complaint.

About Brashear's supposedly patronizing attitude toward Tyler, Price retorts, "That's a bunch of crap. She's new to education and this level of politics. Mr. Brashear wanted to treat her like he was going to be the bear and she was going to be the cub. He was just trying to protect her and let her learn."

Tyler, not surprisingly, considers herself past the age of needing protection. "Protect me from what?" she says, rolling her eyes in exasperation. "Maybe he was protecting him [Price]."

Several times during her conversation with the Observer, Tyler seems to restrain herself from blasting Brashear. "I don't want to attack anyone. They can attack me as much as they choose to...these are the results of some of the things I've had to endure while I was on the board. I am a lady. I'm 40 years old. Don't take me for granted."

Brashear, incidentally, accepts Price's well-intentioned papa bear/cub analogy. "Yes, he's right," Brashear says about Tyler. "I took her under my wing."

That included arranging a fundraiser for Tyler so she could begin clearing her campaign debt to the Staffs. Brashear says he and businesswoman Joyce Foreman organized a fundraiser for Tyler last winter, though he doesn't know how much money was raised. "I didn't want her to be beholden to another board member," he says. Says Foreman: "We gave all the checks to Se-Gwen."

Tyler says she applied the money to her campaign debt, but that shouldn't put her in hock to Brashear. "Ask Hollis what was coming up on the agenda," Tyler says, suggesting that Brashear was simply trying to enlist her vote on which firm the board would choose to conduct an internal audit of district affairs.

Brashear says he treated Tyler the same way he was treated by black former trustees Yvonne Ewell and Kathlyn Gilliam when he first came on the board in 1992. "I served as an understudy...You have to listen to somebody who has the best interests of the community at heart."

Tyler scoffs at the notion Brashear has black Dallas' best interests in mind. She points out that Brashear wasn't listening to the black or Hispanic communities when they voiced their united support for Dr. Carrol "Butch" Thomas as superintendent. "This is not about me," Tyler says. "I'm thinking about the children every time I make a decision, and I was thinking about the children when I voted for Miss Staff."

Tyler goes on to question Brashear's motives for serving on the board. She alleges that recurring problems in DISD haven't been investigated properly because Brashear has too many friends throughout the system. "I know that's the reason some of the ideas I've suggested haven't gone anywhere," she says.

Venable, for one, lauds Tyler's independence and willingness to vote against her African-American board colleagues. He says it only took her a week to establish her own course as a trustee and decline to follow Brashear's and Price's lead. "I think Se-Gwen has the intelligence and independence to be a good board member, and in doing so she's going to catch an awful lot of hell from people who don't want her to be that way," he says.

Tyler has also won an ally in Ron Davis, former president of Townview Magnet high school's PTA, who says he's pleased with her representation of District 5. "Many folks in the [black] community felt that we should take a hard position until she became a team player," Davis says. Now, he says, many people are upset about the buffeting Tyler has taken in the media -- especially from Brashear.

Says Brashear: "I'm not fanning the flames. I simply told the truth."

Which is more than he will say for Tyler.

For weeks leading up to the board's election of new officers, Brashear claims Tyler led him to believe she would cast her vote for him as board president. Then, moments before the vote took place, Tyler informed him that she'd changed her mind. He says that makes her a liar.

Tyler denies ever saying she would vote for Brashear. "I said I would 'support' him," she says. "I never said I would vote for him."

Once again, Ron Price backs up Brashear's view of events. Tyler "personally told me three or four times -- without me even asking -- that she was voting for Hollis, and she said it in the presence of a lot of people," Price says, though he can't remember when or where the declarations were made.

What neither he nor Brashear volunteer are the behind-the-scenes machinations that preceded the vote.

Tyler claims that Brashear had not only sicced the late trustee Yvonne Ewell's cronies on her, but also enlisted ministers and elected officials to put pressure on her to vote for him. "He even had Hattie Jackson call my pastor," Tyler says.

She believes she walked into a series of ambushes on the day of the vote. She says when she arrived at DISD headquarters on June 2, members of Ewell's old advisory council were waiting for her.

Brashear initially sidestepped questions about whether he had made calls to the ministers, activists, and officials. Then he denied it. He did say some called him with "concerns" about Tyler.

Brashear also volunteers that a "prominent minister" met with Tyler and himself to "try to straighten all of this out." He and Tyler both declined to give the minister's name.

Tyler uses the word harassment to describe her meeting with the women from Ewell's advisory council. Tyler told the women she would "vote her heart."

What's clear is that Tyler already had some sort of understanding with Roxan Staff.

"I had spoken to her about a possible change in leadership right after the May election" of new trustees, Staff says. She says Tyler was "open," though she made no commitments. "I said to Se-Gwen, if you can't support me, let me know, and I won't put myself out for nomination."

Staff put her name out and won.

Tyler now says she had already decided to support Staff in May, but doesn't bother to reconcile that with her pledge of "support" for Brashear. "I didn't say no, but I didn't say yes," she says.

Tyler maintains her decision to support Staff was about the kids, and nothing more. "In order for this district to move forward, everyone's heart has got to be in the right place, and I don't see where his [Brashear's] is," she says.

Asked if she has any specifics to back up her criticisms of Brashear, Tyler says, "Nothing particular."

For a moment, she appears lost in thought. Then she turns once again to the issue closest to her heart. "I just demand respect," she says. "If you won't give it to me, I'll get it."

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Felicia Mccarthy